The Eviscerated Public Square

The Eviscerated Public Square October 2, 2013
"We live in self-imposed exile from communal conversation and action. The public square is naked. American politics has lost its soul," says Borgmann.
“We live in self-imposed exile from communal conversation and action. The public square is naked. American politics has lost its soul,” says Borgmann.

When you accumulate books there is always that one which you’ve meant to read for the longest time. For whatever reason, call it grace or luck, you pick it up one day and spend the rest of the week (month, year) kicking yourself for not reading it earlier.

I’m presently kicking myself for not picking up Albert Borgmann’s Crossing the Posmodern Divide before Monday (even though I’m quite satisfied with my readings of great books by D.B. Hart, Norman Davies, and A.D. Nock).

Crossing the Postmodern Divide was the first thing to come to mind (dunno why… I’m weird?) just as news of the government “shutdown” reached me.

Then yesterday’s withering critique of classical liberalism in the most recent pope Francis interview only confirmed the timeliness of Bogrmann’s book.

Here’s what il papa said:

“Personally I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded. We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love. We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.”

The perversity of what Francis describes is indicative of an eviscerated public square. Forget Nehaus’s naked public square when both parties are tearing at the flesh, cleaning out the innards, of the body politic.

Borgmann is just as relentless in his analysis of the political gridlock of the 90’s. What he says, unfortunately, sounds like it could have been written yesterday:

“There is a rising sentiment that we are coming to the close not only of a century and a millennium but of an era, too [written in 1992]. The sentiment has not quite become universal, but the indications of closure and transition are manifold. One indication is the difficulty we have in finding the kind of discourse that would help us to chart the passage from the present to the future. The idiom we have favored since the beginning of the modern era fails to inspire conviction or yield insight; the language of those who are proclaiming a new epoch seems merely deconstructive or endlessly prefatory.

The distinctive discourse of modernity is one of prediction and control. In the teeth of severe cultural and moral crises, we continue to use it as if it were the sole alternative to sullen silence. Ironically, there is a profound helplessness in surrendering the future to prediction and control, and there would be even if we could predict and control things at will.

We predict the weather and try to control inflation because we are not the weather and not inflation. They are objects other than ourselves, objects we want to subject to ourselves. Strictly speaking, I do not predict or control myself or my behavior. I promise or decide to do a certain thing; I pledge myself to do it. I do not manipulate or arrange my behavior so that it proceeds to the desired outcome. I either do or fail to do what I set out to do.

Nor would I think of predicting and controlling others to whom I am bound by ties of respect and affection. It would not occur to me to assimilate them to the weather and inflation. Yet the dominant discourse about the future of our society is composed of the vocables of prognoses, projections, extrapolations, scenarios, models, programs, simulations, and incentives. It is as though we had taken ourselves out of reality and had left only objectified and disavowed versions of ourselves in the universe [Sounds a lot like Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos, doesn’t it?]  we are trying to understand and shape. We vacate our first-person place and presence in the world just when we mean to take responsibility for its destiny. Surely there is deprivation and helplessness in this.

Liberals have been most determined collectively to plan and engineer society for the better. They, accordingly, have been associated most closely with the obstreperous problems of social policy and the vacancy of public discourse. To conservative minds, the sensible alternative to misguided liberal ambitions is a healthy respect for the natural order of things. We can affect the large design of society only in a negative manner. All we can do positively and collectively is step aside and allow the native ambitions of individuals and the spontaneous dynamics of small groups to take their beneficial course.

But there is helplessness in this position, too, for it views social reality as a natural fact like the seasons and the weather, and urges us to make peace with it. Like liberals, conservatives feel bound to consider society objectively and prospectively, to determine the best future outcome given our present conditions. Here, too, the collective future is something that happens to people.

In bringing out the predictive and controlling intentions of modern discourse about the future I am not concerned with highlighting the limits of social science or the seriousness of social and environmental problems. These are real enough. But even if we could overcome these obstacles, the crucial debility of the rule of prediction and control would remain, namely, the expatriate quality of public life. We live in self-imposed exile from communal conversation and action. The public square is naked. American politics has lost its soul. The republic has become procedural, and we have become unencumbered selves. Individualism has become cancerous. We live in an age of narcissism and pursue loneliness. These expressions are alarming not because they predict the ruin of the state; prediction and control, for all their liabilities, will continue to provide comfort and stability. Rather, these expressions of distress should disquiet us because they indicate that we have no common life, what what hold us all together is a cold and impersonal design.”

It appears that the striptease didn’t end with the naked public square. Our politics are stripping away living flesh, ripping out vital organs. There’s also some indication here that some horrible theology is behind it all. Heresy, it’s been said, kills.

All this reminds me I should at least page through my notes in Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots. There is much weariness in connections between readings and the end of the world almost seems like a relief…

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment